April 26, 1998—In Belmont, Calif., across the continent from the state that confined his spirit for years, Douglas Springsteen, a onetime WII Army driver, mill worker, cab driver and prison guard, died of cancer. He left a wife, two daughters, and a rock ‘n’ roller son whose life was overshadowed by their love-hate relationship: Bruce Springsteen.
The 1978 album by The Boss, Darkness on the Edge of Town, marked a departure from three prior studio LPs not merely because he had gained his freedom from manager Mike Appel and was concentrating on shorter, more radio-friendly tunes, but also because he began to mine more insistently from his own life and environment. Two songs from the album, though they did not receive as much radio play as the singles "Badlands" and “Prove It All Night,” reflected his relationship with his father.
“Factory,” slow and mournful, trembles with ambivalence about the cost of Douglas Springsteen’s work: His job may give him “life,” by allowing him to support his family, but at the end of the day, when the workers leave “with death in their eyes,” there’s a clear sense of foreboding: “Somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight.” It signals Bruce's eventual role as the poet laureate of the working class.
“Adam Raised a Cain,” filled with a guitar as angry as a buzzsaw, accompanied lyrics as raw as any he had written to date (“Well, Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain,/Now he walks these empty halls looking for something to blame”). The lyrics not only allude to the father-and-son tale of Genesis, but also to a fictional and cinematic retelling of it: East of Eden.
Over the years, Springsteen would relate to audiences stories about his father sitting in the house with the lights off, silently smoking and drinking. The image recalls nothing so much as the opening of Carly Simon’s first major hit, “That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be”:
“My father sits at night with no lights on
His cigarette glows in the dark.
The living room is still;
I walk by, no remark.”
In a prior post, I discussed how the father of the songstress, publisher Richard Simon, came to this pass of depression and withdrawal: marginalization after his company was acquired, and his growing awareness that his wife had taken a youthful companion for their son as her own lover.
The Springsteens didn’t share the Simons’ upper-middle-class milieu, and certainly not their psychosexual dynamics, but they were just as deeply affected by the problems of their patriarch. Bruce engaged in constant clashes with his father, especially about his hair and guitar.
Hearing his father often complaining about “My f----n' boss,” Bruce told promoter John Scher in the early ‘70s, according to a 1998 article by Daily News writer David Hinckley, that someday he would be “the f---n’ boss.” And so it proved.
Like Simon, Springsteen felt unmoored at the height of his fame, even considering suicide at one point. Last summer, in an interview with David Remnick of The New Yorker, he revealed that one reason why he avoided drugs was because he “worried that he would not escape the thread of mental instability that ran through his family.” (The hard factory life was only one factor that weighed on Doug Springsteen: he was haunted for years by the death of his five-year-old sister, who had been hit by a truck in Freehold, NJ.) Remnick suggests that Doug Springsteen was, in fact, bipolar.
In the late 1970s, Springsteen and his taciturn father reconciled. That emotional movement was captured beautifully in “Independence Day,” from the 1980 album The River. (“Papa now I know the things you wanted that you could not say.”) At the time of Douglas’ death Bruce issued a statement that he felt “lucky to have been so close to my dad as I became a man and a father myself.”
“Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship,” observes Gene Garrison, the father-troubled middle-aged professor played by Gene Hackman, in the 1970 film I Never Sang for My Father. Assessing his own successes and failures as husband and father, Bruce Springsteen would surely endorse that sentiment. He and his father had been “prisoners of love” in his youth. In time, the son would make his fellow prisoner “the most famous civilian father in the history of rock 'n' roll,” in Hinckley’s words.